Category Archives: North Channel

Finbarr Hedderman and the North Channel – VI – The Sharp End

Finbarr Hedderman and the North Channel – I – Flowery crap.

Finbarr Hedderman and the North Channel – II – Famous Pilot, Famous Boat.

Finbarr Hedderman and the North Channel – III – Anyone For An Early Morning Dip?

Finbarr Hedderman and the North Channel – IV – Just Eight laps of Sandycove

Finbarr Hedderman and the North Channel – V – “That’s It, I’m Done.”

Swimmer & boat
Small Universe of Swimmer & Boat

Sometimes I wonder if it is these few moments that best explain marathon swimming. When the swimmer swims until maybe they think they can swim no more. It’s not about the time or the distance or even the swimming, but when this point arrives, it’s about what happens next.

So we ignored Fin’s protest and he kept on swimming. Maybe just articulating the difficulty is sufficient for the right swimmer to continue onwards. It happens and it’s not a reflection of the conditions or the day or the swimmer. Channel swimming can be out there on the hairy edge of human capability. We can never explain it fully, despite that Channel swimmers often have an over-riding to try.

Craig and I discussed if one of us would go in for a support swim, but we decided it wasn’t really necessary.  At the next fee we offered and Fin discounted the suggestion anyway.

The wind and hence the sea settled for 15 minutes, but then blew up again and continued to deteriorate, all while the Sun shone overhead and the afternoon passed. We were at the Sharp End of the swim, the place where we say the swimmer has merely swum to the start.

In the English Channel it’s ZC2, in Manhattan it’s the Hudson, in Catalina it’s where the seafloor suddenly rises. The swimming hours before are just part of the price of entry.

We fed him at 4:35 p.m. and the Sun belied the nasty conditions. The random short-period wind waves rolling in from the south-west, coming over his shoulder, rolling the boat, each wave trying to be the one that would catch him aware, each one trying to assert the Sea’s dominance over any puny human foolish enough to dare its primacy.

Battling
Battling

One of the features of the North Channel according to Quinton, is that the final couple of miles outside Portpatrick are almost always bad, a local feature of the confluence of wind, tide and currents, a micro-climate different to the rest of the Channel. A good day very rapidly degenerates and the swimmer is fighting a maelstrom of white water and waves from seemingly all directions.

Killantringan
Killantringan

Fin was fighting onward, but on the boat we finally knew he would make it. He knew he would make it, because there comes a point where it makes less sense to give up than to continue, because you have already invested time and pain.

Portpatrick was clear ahead and slightly to starboard, buildings clear in the late afternoon sunlight. All along the coast were the empty hills and the wind turbines that had been vaguely visible for hours. Killantringan was north-east of us, but we were south enough to get swept in. He would not, could not be stopped now. Two laps of Sandycove, the Metalman to Tramore beach, one full lap of Dover Harbour. He would, he could.

Happy crew over a certain favourable finish
Happy crew watch over Fin and anticipate over a certain favourable finish

At 5:05 we gave Fin his feed and I got to say the magic words, the words every swimmer wants to hear, the words every crew wants to say: “This is your last feed“.

Craig and I discussed which of us would swim Fin in. I told Craig he should go as I’d swum both Sylvain and Gábor and others in and I wanted to photograph the finish.

Looking for Scotland
Looking for Scotland

At 5:45 p.m. as Craig gets ready, I make my final note of the swim in my notebook to that effect. I’m stood on the bow, my Dad’s old football whistle, now a feature of all swims I crew on a lanyard around my neck, whistling and shouting. We’ve been pushed just to the north of the small bay between Killantringan and Portpatrick. Craig, proudly wearing his yellow CSA Channel Swimmer’s cap, (as I wear my own orange C&PF Channel cap) jumps over the side at two minutes to six. His instructions from the ILDSA observer Gary and Quinton are clear. Don’t swim in front of Fin or touch him, from Gary, and given the usually dangerous cliff finish of a North Channel solo, get Fin to touch a rock and raise his arm, that’ll be enough, (standing wouldn’t be necessary, or possible) from Quinton.

Craig is on the far side of Fin within seconds, and we’re only a hundred metres from the rocks. They disappear behind waves, appear a couple of metre closer to the shore. I try to get them both in frame, the waves, the angle the boat rocking, the zoom, all make it difficult. Closer still, I see Craig and no Finbarr, then Fin and no Craig.

Craig & Fin and cliffs IMG_3566.resized

Craig is at the cliffs. Where’s Fin? And then there he is. Three or four metres away from Craig, Fin touches the cliff and pushes off on his feet trying to raise both arms, he looks like he’s pushing off a pivot turn and heading for the second lap. It’s 6:01 p.m. July 7th and Finbarr Hedderman has swum the North Channel.

Touch
Touch

Not sure if the waves have blocked our view of Fin, Craig tells him to raise his arm again. I get a shot of him like that, but I prefer the above photo,the real touch. Because it doesn’t matter if wasn’t elegant, it was real, it was what he worked for. Elegance, clarity, zoom and photographic composition are less important than the reality. The swimmer thinks of that touch, visualises, works for it, swims for it, dreams of it. The entire sport, all the words and the images, all the endurance and time are in that moment. The suffering is over, the pain vanishes, the coast is reached.

Touching an unnamed bit of rock on the Scottish Coast, never before touched by a human, probably never to be touched again, Finbarr is Neil Armstrong, Fionn Mac Cumhaill and Edmund Hillary reborn, even if there are only two friends, a pilot and a crew there to see and appreciate it.

At 6:02 p.m. and back safely on the boat with Craig, Fin announces his retirement from Channel swimming.

He lasts a full six weeks in retirement before he shares his next idea with me. But I’m not telling.

***

marine traffic Finbarr & ship IMG_3317 Best Shots 5.resized

Finbarr had neither cold water nor jellyfish in the North Channel. He took a calculated risk based on training and his known capability to go early and he didn’t even have to fall back on his cold expertise. Yet his North Channel was unexpectedly tough, because sometimes the biggest challenge is ourselves. Two weeks later, though the weather stayed warm, an experienced English Channel swimmer was alledgedly pulled semi-conscious from the water. The water temperature had dropped five degrees.

Two weeks after Fin’s swim, he said”it means something to me, I just don’t know what yet“. I know he was surprised, even shocked, how much it had hurt mentally, and how hard it was. For years he’d joked how he’d forgotten his English Channel solo, but said after his North Channel that he’d remembered during the swim when memories of difficulty returned. It’s the nature of pain that we must as animals forget it when it’s not present, otherwise any species would never survive.

The mystery of the North Channel has been evaporating for the past couple of seasons. Aspirants no longer need to be successful English Channel soloists, and some North channel swimmers have recently completed it at their first marathon swim. The people approaching the North Channel already now include some less than experienced individuals, such as the one who though they could get on the boat to feed and wanted an artist on board to paint them while another crew member played the flute. This also happened in the 2014 season after Fin’s swim.

Quinton’s piloting makes swim time and the route more quantifiable. It makes the North Channel definitely quicker than the English Channel, and of course it’s shorter, with a more defined time envelope. Success rates have risen dramatically in just two years, though the overall numbers remain small for now, limited by the changeable weather as always and the mere two boats in the fleet, with the other main constraint associated with Channels swimming, appropriate tides. If the current demand for North Channel swims continues, which seems likely, then the fleet will grow and a few more years will tell us a lot more. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see a third pilot-boat operate in 2015 or 2016.

*

Of all the things I know or suspect or feel or hope about marathon and Channel swimming, one of the most important things I know is that, trite as it sounds, every swim is different. Profoundly, fundamentally different. Maybe it takes a crucible swim, one of those swims that puts you to the question, to make you realise this, as I realised this. Sitting on a boat, as crew we laugh and fret and chat and even worry. We don’t, we can’t, sit there and let ourselves inside the swimmer’s head.

Finbarr and I share, as do many marathon swimmers, an interest in adventure books, specifically climbing and polar adventure. Maybe it’s partly because the literature about Channel and marathon swimming in limited. Journalists can write about mountain climbing or exploration, but who can write effectively about Channel Swimming, except Channel Swimmers? And that’s a pretty small number in global terms, something we tend to forget when we are immersed in the community.

Heinrich Harrer’s The White Spider, the tale of the opening of the Eiger’s notorious North Face, and one of the great true life climbing books is replete with wisdom for anyone either wishing to understand these crazy ridiculous adventures, or wishing to explain them. He quotes climber Geoffrey Winthrop Young: “The modern lay-public,” he writes, “is now ready to read mountain adventures among its other sensational reading. It still demands excitement all the time. [...]. It wants records, above all. Records in height, records in endurance, hair-breadth escapes on record rock walls, and a seasoning of injuries, blizzards, losses of limbs and hazards of life…. I have suggested that the writers and producers of mountain books must also take some of the responsibility….

Substitute Channel Swimming for mountain adventures and the analogy is clear. When covering Channel swimming some of this applies. I can cover Trent Grimsey’s English Channel record because I was there and it may stand for a generation, and no other swim will ever hold the same prestige. I covered Sylvain Estadieu, because even us Channel swimmers boggle at the idea of twenty-one miles of open water butterfly. In Part One of this series I wrote that I do these swim reports in part because I’ve had the privilege to be part of them and because these swims also allow me to bring aspects of marathon and Channel swimming to a wider audience, to share the fortune I’ve had to be part of them. But I myself by doing so have to be careful not to feed the idea that just because a swim isn’t a first or a record that it’s less important to cover.

Also, to retain your interest I split the narrative at appropriate points such as “That’s It, I’m done“. Such implies a dramatic point whereas in the swim it was part of a continuous linear event.

Like Lisa Cummins and Sylvain Estadieu, Finbarr set out to swim a two-way. Neither Sylvain nor Finbarr did, and not once I consider either a failure because they didn’t complete that goal. Each though did complete a crossing, as every Channel swimmer does, a feat of endurance and courage.  As did the other friends I know and have crewed for and didn’t cover here. There’s a quotation from Homer that I haven’t used on the blog for a few years that seems apposite: “For wreaking havoc upon a strong man, even the very strongest, there is nothing so dire as the sea“.To dream so large and then to attempt the feat has always seemed to me a triumph in itself and success of its own and each dream alone makes me proud to be a friend of each.

Channel and marathon swimming differs from tales of mountain climbing in some obvious aspects. The time frame is usually shorter, the possibility of safe extraction is greater. It’s not an us-versus-them comparison though, and few would understand the Channel swimmer’s motivation as would a mountain climber.

But for someone writing about Channel there’s a difficulty. Every mountain has immovable features and famous landmarks, whether it’s K2’s Serac or the Eiger’s White Spider. The pitons and ropes and ladders are still fixed and still used on the Hinterstoisser Traverse and Everest’s Second Step.

Channel swimmers only have pilots, boats, water, wind, currents and locations. No swimmer leaves their mark on a Channel.

The swimmer passes and the water’s surface is immediately wiped clear of their passage. The water holds no trace. Only the stories and legends live on and to his friends, Finbarr is a legend.

 

Finbarr Hedderman and the North Channel – V – “That’s it. I’m done”

Shoulders & willpower
By shoulders & willpower

Fin increased his stroke rate after the feed and by 15:35 he’d made three kilometres in the preceding hour. Any half hour dip he suffered seemed to be compensated for in the thirty minutes either before or afterwards.

First Mate Mark was plotting every 30 minutes by hand on a chart, separate from the GPS screens, and throughout the swim gave us a continuing speed update. Something that’s not common, it was both good and bad, giving us accurate feedback on Fin’s performance but often not something we wished to intervene with or change.

From quite early on Mark had mentioned wanting Fin to increase speed at certain times, whereas Craig and I had mostly no intention of passing this information to Fin. We didn’t want to interfere with his stroke or whatever mental balance he’d achieved and to request a Channel swimmer to increase rate is something I don’t like to do until it becomes absolutely necessary. But when we later looked at the hourly totals, apart from the first two hours, Fin was consistently swimming just over three kilometres per hour.

Storm clouds grow behind Finbarr
Storm clouds grow behind Finbarr

Ten hours by had passed and the distance remaining was just over four miles. Despite his apparent recovery a few hours previously, it had been brief and he’d slid back into the same slough of despond, trudging onwards, hating every minute, every metre, every stroke.

We talk about these swims, and despite the images, the experience, the crew, the weather, despite the whole point of this nonsense, the hardest thing to keep at the centre of the story is the swimmer. Every swim narrative falls short of what the swimmer deserves. These posts are no different. Almost every time I’ve crewed on a swim, I’ve been front row centre at the greatest sport on earth and one of the least understood. Almost every swim involves pain and effort of which the average person has little concept. All carried out mostly in private, with the recent addition of online GPS SPOT trackers.  But a swim is a small universe of swimmer and sea, boat and crew. To be present is a privilege.

Choppy closeup IMG_3431.resized

I cannot, no matter what I know from experience of swimming or crewing, convert the swimmer’s internal swim into reality for you. It’s akin to trying to describe sensory deprivation.There are really two swims, the observable motion through liquid, and the swimmer’s internal swim, the mental effort that makes Channel swimmers say it’s 80 or 90% mental. The swimmer feels every second and yet somehow doesn’t, feels every stoke but can’t remember a single one afterward. There are seconds counting up slowly, and time itself warps, becomes both endless and meaningless simultaneously.

Cyclists can freewheel, climbers can stand, runners can walk. Channel swimmers must keep swimming. People quote a blue fish from an animated movie like it’s somehow a quote that clarifies everything.  A swimmer cannot stop. If you are even feeding you not swimming and you are not moving forward. The best you can usually hope for is that you would stay in place, but on most Channel swims if you are not swimming you are going sideways or backwards.

While you swim you have a narrative, an arrow of time. “This happened then, and then I thought that, and then next..” But afterwards or from the crew perspective, well, take a headful of tiny events and suspected thoughts, and throw them in the air, then try to assemble them while blind into a narrative with no idea of the language in which they are written. Almost everything for the swimmer is somehow cast adrift from the world, because their hooks into the real world are tenuous and thin. Huge thoughts occur in a swimmer’s mind while swimming. And astonishingly, they evaporate. One cannot remember if something took a second or ten minutes, whether they happened early or late in a swim.

Ten hours. Ten hours is a short swim and ten hours is an eternity. There is no way to tell from the outside and there never will be.

*

Killantringan lighthouse with wind turbines on the  peaks
Killantringan lighthouse at 4 p.m.

In a tangible sense, crossing the North Channel as swim crew feels (all other considerations aside) very different from the English Channel in one definite respect: In the English Channel, while the swimmer nearly always feels like they are swimming to France, at least until the closing hours, on an English Channel pilot boat it’s obvious that it’s  are heading in different directions. From north-east through east to south-east. At one point it seems like you are heading for Calais and can see the port apparently close and directly in front. Hours later you are heading south-east and Sangatte or Wissant are on the port side. Later again the Cap can be on the starboard side. But in the North Channel it always feels like you are heading for Scotland, it always feels like you are taking a straight line. Quinton’s route is more of a banana shape than the English Channel’s “reverse-S”.

There was a constraint though in Quinton’s route. A swimmer must make the stretch of coast between Killantringan and Portpatrick. Come in a tad too slow and the swimmer will get swept first parallel to the coast. Miss the rocks at Killantringan, regardless of speed or how fast you got across, and you are done. Though these aren’t currents of the severity of the English Channel, nevertheless, you’ll go north and then inexorably you’ll be swept back out. This can even apply to the faster swimmers who get there early, the timing of the landing with the tidal current is vital.

From Finbarr’s limited viewpoint the hills above Portpatrick had been visible for hours in front of him and seeming no closer, as is the way with all coasts and all swimmers. So when we told him that Killantringan lighthouse north of Portpatrick should be visible even to him, he muttered that he’d been looking at it for bloody hours.

Choppy Force Three water as a yacht sails west
Choppy Force Three water as a yacht sails west

By the tenth hour, conditions had much deteriorated and with whitecaps all around. We asked Finbarr if he’d take a coffee on his next feed and he agreed with no arguing. But not long afterwards he stopped in water.

That it,” he said, “I’m done“.

Craig guffawed and I snorted. Maybe it was the other way around.

 

Finbarr Hedderman and the North Channel – IV – Just Eight Laps of Sandycove

Port side swimming
Port side swimming

For the early hours of the swim, Finbarr was positioned and feeding (including a third of a Turkish Delight) on the port side, while one of the SeaCat fast ferries to Belfast was rapidly approaching about a kilometre south on the starboard side. This threw a large wake which reached Fin a few minutes after his feed, bringing the sudden swamping waves which always catch a swimmer unawares.

English Channel soloist & proud Tasmanian Craig "Rubber Knickers" Morrison poses for his magazine cover shot
English Channel soloist & proud Tasmanian Craig “Rubber Knickers” Morrison poses for his magazine cover shot

It’s said by those experienced with marathon swimming that one is better off having other marathon swimmers on board as crew (and I’ve strongly espoused this myself). One reason for this is that such crew will supposedly have greater empathy for what the swimmer is going through.  But is this really true? We may have gone through what the swimmer is suffering, but that doesn’t mean we know what is going on with a particular swimmer at a particular time. Nor are we constantly trying to put ourselves in the swimmer’s mind. Crew must do what they can to help the swimmer meet their target and to do this sometimes requires deliberately ignoring a swimmer’s distress. What we can do as swimmers ourselves is appreciate that swims are long physically and mentally tortuous events and complete all the important tasks the best way for the swimmer and if possible anticipate their needs, even if they don’t. As swimmers ourselves, we are less likely to panic, better able to evaluate situations and we are more aware that things need to be as the swimmer requires. Our own experience allows us to anticipate problems and to have a greater range of responses to different situations that do arise.

Craig watching Finbarr. preparing his camera for a bit of mid-swim stroke analysis
Craig watching Finbarr. preparing his camera for a bit of mid-swim stroke analysis

On the drive North, one thing I’d requested of Fin was some brief indication, as simple as a thumbs-up at feeds, that everything was okay. Apart from the battles between his huge cranium and the swimming cap, those fleeting first three hourly feeds hadn’t given Craig and I any specific cause  for concern. Crew expect that two miles from the Cap or Portpatrick, a swimmer will be suffering but otherwise those crew are preparing, feeding, eating, chatting, watching the sea and watching the swimmer.

I’m not very perceptive at reading people. Yet there was some subtle indication, whether just in his eyes during feeds or his cap struggles or the lack of his usual Cork wit, I couldn’t say exactly what, that indicated he wasn’t having a barrel of fun.

Photographer's "Artsy" feed shot
Photographer’s “Artsy” feed shot

Continuing with hourly feeds, by the end of the fourth hour the concern about Finbarr’s speed from First Mate Mark “Sparky” continued.

Before that, I’d had a slightly longer conversation with Quinton while Craig stayed ever attentive to Fin. Quinton and I further discussed a subject, that as with Sylvain, was heretofore unmentioned. That was the possibility of Finbarr continuing on and attempting a two-way crossing. Quinton showed me how he plans and monitors a swim and his guides for determining the status and speed. It was very interesting but it’s Quinton’s long and hard-wrought information so I’ll leave it with him.

Quinton and First Mate Mark
Quinton and First Mate Mark

A two-way crossing of the North Channel has never been completed. Finbarr wasn’t the first to contemplate it, no less than Kevin Murphy, the only person to swim the North Channel three times had also considered it, as had Fergal Somerville. Prevailing thought based on the previous route was that it was probably not possible. But this was the new “Quinton’s route” that had significantly reduced crossing times and increased success rates and changed North Channel swimming.

Finbarr and Quinton has discussed this for a long time, and indeed Finbarr has apprised me of his goal to attempt a two-way the same day he told me of his desire to tackle the North Channel. The previous night’s briefing I so briefly and deliberately alluded to in Part II had included discussion of this. Quinton was of the opinion that, despite the new route, a two-way was nigh on impossible. What does that mean?

Well, Quinton said that the return leg is technically possibly, but will take two to three times the duration of the first Donaghadee to Portpatrick leg because even with a good fast first leg, the tides don’t line up for a return swim the way they can in the English Channel.  Given the three primary constraints of the North Channel,  what swimmer can step into the water expecting to spend 36 to 48 hours in water that’s potentially only ten to twelve degrees? So it’s not impossible, but highly unlikely. Having written that I expect someone else will now add pencil a two-way North Channel to their list of targets. That’s great, just remember to call me to crew!

Quinton Nelson, the pilot who changed the North Channel, throwing an gimlet eye over his swimmer
Quinton Nelson, the pilot who changed the North Channel, throws a gimlet eye over his swimmer.

So during that hour when we spoke, Quinton showed me the maps again and we also once again discussed the possibility of a return swim. Not really aware of Finbarr’s ongoing inner struggle, I countered Quinton’s closing assertion to me; “you can’t do a two-way” with “we’ll see how he gets on at the turn“.

It wasn’t any arrogance or knowing better on my side. I knew Quinton was the expert, neither Craig nor I had even crewed the North Channel before. It was however part of our remit and task to be Finbarr’s voice on the boat, to try to ensure we did everything to forward his goals. And I recalled, couldn’t ever forget, that my own English Channel solo would have been called had it not been for the presence of Kevin Murphy on board arguing in my favour with a recalcitrant pilot unwilling to see that I refused to give up despite the events that had occurred. While Quinton wasn’t of the same mindset, I was more aware therefore than most of what some of my job as crew entailed.

The next few hours passed with the minutiae and concerns that illustrate any Channel swim. A seal briefly appeared, a cargo ship passed astern. A couple of yachts passed on a beam reach from Scotland and we frantically waved a power boat passing very close to slow down. A visible Lion’s Mane jellyfish passed close to Fin a couple of hours into the swim.

Jellyfish fly-by
Jellyfish fly-by

The third and last of the overarching problems in North Channel swimming is that of jellyfish generally and Lion’s Manes specifically, far beyond any similar found in the English Channel. They bloom in huge numbers in summer in the Irish Sea while they are only very occasional solitary visitors on the south coast. Swimmers trying to avoid the possibly ten degree water of early and mid-summer choose August, usually the warmest month in the water or early September. But this trade-off increases the likelihood of encountering the Lion’s Mane, which not only occurs in large numbers, but individually can be one of the largest of all jellyfish, with tentacles averaging of 10 metres and exceptional specimens up to 50 metres long. Stories abound of swims abandoned due to toxin build-up in joints causing extreme pain, swimmers attempting literally miles of thick Lion’s Mane soup, tentacles swallowed causing swollen throats and threatening a swimmer’s ability to breath, swimmers at night repeatedly crying out in pain, swimmers hospitalised.

The dilemma of the North Channel can be put simply:

Go early and risk the cold or go late and risk the jellyfish.

Finbarr had played to his strength and risked, and prepared for the cold. It paid off. After that visible jellyfish, we never saw another and Fin was not stung. He was doubly lucky in his risk-taking, because though no-one was better prepared for cold than him except Fergal, it wasn’t even cold. This gamble or dilemma is now one of the keys to understanding the North Channel.

Grumpy face, recalcitrant cap.
Grumpy face, recalcitrant cap.

Our hoped-for tide push by now seeming to be tardy, at the 10:38 a.m. we asked Fin for “a good hour” following a request from Mark. Fin admitted that he’d been having shoulder pain for the previous couple of hours. Yet shortly after the feed Mark told us that actually Fin had improved speed over the previous hour.

Shoulder problems. Shoulder pain. Swimmers have a range of responses; from accepting shoulder pain as normal, to shoulder pain instilling fear. It is potentially swim-ending if it develops early and gets severe enough.

Just after the switch to starboard
Just after the switch to starboard, clouds starting build in the west over Ireland.

The wind picked up slightly. We left him on the port side a little longer since he is a right-side-only breather. Then at the feed at 11:17 a.m., the last of his hourly feeds, we asked him to switch to starboard and he readily agreed, though he still looked unhappy.

During the sixth hour, the breeze having increased we switched Finbarr to starboard. He asked for a painkiller and we gave him two Ibuprofen 200 mg floating in a cup. The liquid ran out and the pills stuck to the bottom of the plastic cup, requiring him to retrieve them by hand. He wasn’t impressed and expressed his disapproval vocally to me. What is a tiny event for crew can be a real irritant for a swimmer if other things aren’t well.

Just after noon at 12:07 we also finally switched to 30 minute feeds. I asked Fin how he was feeling. “Shit,” he succinctly replied. Craig fed him and then told him he had a mere eight laps of Sandycove to go.

A lap of Sandycove is like perception of water temperature, something of a moving target and different things to different people. Anywhere from 1700 to 1900 metres, a Sandycove lap is for those of us with hundreds, or in Fin’s case thousands of laps completed, a perfect exemplar of the variability of the remaining distance of a marathon swim. “Four Sandycove laps to the Cap” is a common phrase amongst Sandycove Channel swimmers.

The nest 30 minute feed at 12:34 saw a transformed Finbarr. He looked much more content and cackled during his feed. It was finally clear that he did previously have that nebulous look of unhappiness, now obvious by its absence.  Just to prove it, he launched into a stroke of butterfly.

By the next feed, the wind had lifted a little again to a high Force Two or low Force Three and getting choppy. Fin was swimming about 1.9 miles per hour early in the hour but dropped to 1.1 kilometre. The tide had slackened, phone signals were lost and Fin needed to increase speed again.

*

At the 13:35 feed Fin requested two Neurofen, a slightly stronger Ibuprofen-based painkiller. Eight hours had passed. I’d brought a large pump-action flask to make mixing feeds easier than using a regular flask (of which we also had multiples with hot water. We’d finally emptied that so I moved onto another flask for next feed, an old steel Thermos I’ve been using for well over a decade first when surfing, later swimming, always for coffee or hot chocolate. I mixed the feed and when Craig gave to Fin he was voluble in his pronounced dislike for the caffeine taste. (Fin doesn’t drink coffee normally. I switched to a different flask after that, but when I got home the next day I put some baking soda into the steel flask to clean it as I’d only ever used hot water previously. A decade and a half of caked-on coffee and chocolate residue slid out of the flask. It was pretty nasty. No wonder there was a coffee taste on that eighth-hour feed!)

Calm day at sea Guy & Clare Hunter IMG_3179.resized

By half-two in the afternoon the conditions were quite choppy to starboard (south to south-west) so we asked Fin if he was okay to move back to port side and he duly agreed, with Quinton saying he’d only use the starboard engine. Such flexibility of control is very rare in pilot boats, and any swimmer who’s ever swim through a patch of boat diesel exhaust knows how horrible it is, as at best it tastes really nasty and at worst can induce vomiting. The previous hour speed had again dropped, this time to two point one kilometres per hour, and stroke rate dipped from the steady 70 strokes per minute to sixty-six.

Weather builds in the west
Weather builds in the west

 

On the south-west horizon (the Irish coast around Strangford Loch) thunderclouds were building with reports of heavy rain from First Mate Mark. The wind ticked up again and we were now into Force Three, with regular whitecaps and a wind-driven swelly chop coming from the south-west. As the next hour passed the thunderhead grew steadily, looking like they were chasing Fin down, though since he was on the other side of the boat and the sky was blue in front, to him it still looked like a completely clear day and the sunny aspect made the water surface look better. The disparity of view between the two sides of the boat very obvious. North-east of us, some fifty miles away, the ancient volcanic island peak of Ailsa Crag, mining site of most curling stones  in the world, was barely visible in the haze.

Craig watches the thunderheads grow
Craig watches the thunderhead grow

 

Finbarr Hedderman and the North Channel – III – Anyone for an early morning dip?

There are three overarching obstacles with the North Channel, all similar to the English Channel but two at least are usually worse. The first that had already affected us in the earlier call then stand-down, then call again, was the very unpredictable weather, similar to the English Channel. The North Channel just happens to be another 200 miles further north.

We arrived in the harbour as dawn was lightening the sky, Observer Gary pulling up the same time and Quinton and crew Jordan and Mark arriving a couple of minutes later.

We loaded the boat; food, boxes of swim and feeding gear and backup swim gear, clothes for afterwards, foul weather clothes, bottles of water, flasks of already heated water, more food.

Donaghadee Harbour Lighthouse IMG_3005_01.resized
Dawn peeks behind Donaghadee Lighthouse

Quinton pushed off and we moved out of the harbour around the lighthouse which previously had marked Donaghadee Harbour for the steam packet mail-boats that endured into the latter half of the twentieth century and now give their name to a ferry company. The Sun had just risen in the east over above Scotland and with clear skies we were suddenly awash with the gold and sharp horizontal and contrasty shadows of dawn making the Irish Sea a deep hammered steel-blue. The breeze was light, Force One just texturing the surface as we motored the short trip around outside the harbour.

Finbarr was subdued as we motored out, and it was then that he made the surprising admission of nervousness to Craig and I mentioned in Part I. We, as was our job, dismissed it and concentrated on the tasks at hand.

As we got closer and mark gave us the word, Fin started to change and get greased up. His shoulders still bore extensive scars from the chaffing of spring training, scars which still marked a time of stress and change in his training that he had kept to himself.

Apprehensive IMG_3019.resized
An apprehensive Finbarr

At five twenty-nine a.m. Fin jumped in the water to swim about 200 metres into the shore. Unlike the stone shingle and white cliffs above Shakespeare Beach or the rocks of Tarifa  or the darkness of Catalina Island, the shore outside Donaghadee is unusually prosaic for such a challenging swim as it’s backed by a small estate of semi-detached houses and children’s playground. Maybe woken by a crying infant,or leaving for shift work, I wondered does anyone ever chance to look out from the bedroom window of one of these houses, mere dozens of metres behind and, with dawn just having broken, see some crazy person throw themselves into the cold water? And if so, what do they think?

Swimming into the start
Swimming into the start

At the shore, the dawn light fully illuminating him, Fin raised his arm, and dove forward to swim back out toward the boat and then onward. The swim start time was five thirty-three a.m. with water temperature reading warm for the North Channel at 14º Celsius while on the boat the early morning was a bit chilly. North of us was Copeland Island and beyond in the north-east was Mew Island with Mew Island lighthouse sheltering the entrance to Belfast Loch. Scotland was clearly visible in front of the bow, a few miles closer than France is to England, with the day quite different to the prevailing wisdom of the English Channel, where the old saying is that if you can see France it’s not a good day to swim.

Swimming out to boat at start IMG_3048_01.resized

Finbarr started steady and made a good mile and a half in the first 30 minutes, setting off a good stroke rate. He passed the outside of Copeland Island in 45 minutes as marked by the first visible to crew jellyfish . We’d started before high tide and hoped that once we passed the line of Mew Island, that the flow would increase and give Fin a speed boost and we’d even later pick up a tide change increase.

Dawn light highlights Finbarr
Dawn light highlights Finbarr

We gave him his first feed slightly late after about an hour and five minutes, I was too busy taking pictures when Craig noticed the time. Fin took almost three-quarters of a litre of single strength Maxi which he downed in a mere seven or eight seconds. He said nothing, and made no mention of the fact that he felt unsettled and wasn’t relaxing into the swim. By seven a.m. he was finally passing outside the line of Mew Island and lighthouse. This was where we hoped for a slight increase in speed, but First Mate Sparky informed us instead that Fin’s speed had dropped slightly from two point four knots to two knots.

First feed IMG_3121.resized
First Feed

The breeze continued Force Two, a good day for swimming. During a quick chat though with Quinton he told me something quite surprising; that these conditions, which would be good in the English Channel) were about the limit for North Channel swimming.

Fin & Donaghadee Lighthouse
Fin & Donaghadee Lighthouse

The water temperature readings had stabilised and it was an excellent fourteen degrees, after a particularly good Irish summer. This was a temperature that many English Channel swimmers fear but in which Irish channel swimmers train all the time. It’s also a temperature that few North Channel swimmers would expect and to hope for such was a mistake some had made.

from left, Donaghadee Lighthouse, Copeland Island and Mew Island with Mew Lighthouse.
from left, Donaghadee Lighthouse, Copeland Island and Mew Island with Mew Lighthouse.

The second of the three overarching obstacles to the North Channel and principle amongst them is the temperature. Thanks to the elevated latitude, it’s colder than the English Channel. The summer temperature expected by those who take the North Channel seriously is a mere twelve degrees. It is because of this historically low temperature that swimmers has usually chosen to risk the third obstacle and swim late in the season during August and September, hoping for thirteen or fourteen degrees but not always getting such. Fergal Somerville’s North Channel swim 53 weeks earlier in the previous year had also occurred during a good spell but temperatures had been at or under ten degrees.

Ninety minutes into swim, with Mew Light house  closer, the errant swim cap attempts to escape
Ninety minutes into the swim, with Mew Light house closer, the errant swim cap attempts to escape. This much blue is rare in Ireland.

At his second hour feed, the chill starting to leave the air, Finbarr was five miles out and as quick feeding as the first, after which he voiced “Jesus Christ, these jellyfish are huge“, his Cork accent travelling over the water. He hadn’t been stung though and on the surface the jellies were few and a mostly giant but harmless Barrel jellies with scattered blue stingers and just a couple of smaller Lion’s Manes seen.  Otherwise everything still seemed fine to us. His stroke was a consistent 70 strokes per minute rate, a significantly higher figure than a year previously after a conscious change in his training to include more speed and sprint work.

For Finbarr however, despite that the day was good and the water warm and the breeze had dropped in the second hour to “light air” or Force One, he was not feeling good for those first couple of hours.

Swimmers often take an hour to relax and settle into their stroke but as the first hour changed to the  second, he wasn’t enjoying himself. He’d noticeable twinges in his shoulders and wasn’t feeling comfortable. This is one of the challenges of marathon and Channel swimming; that despite all the training, on the day, not all is copacetic and at a time when most athletic events are already long over, the Channel swimmer is contemplating the many hours still ahead, often while already in difficulty.

Fin and I had often discussed and agreed on certain precepts of marathon swimming: That there was little point unless somehow, despite the suffering, there should be fun. That the swimmer must take something of enjoyment from the attempt. Otherwise, what would be the point?

Fin swimming IMG_3142 Best Shots 14.resized

Finbarr had stopped three times by the middle of the third hour to adjust his swim cap. He’d  planned and hoped to wear the old style bubble cap allowed by English Channel rules but the official ILDSA Observer Gary has told him it wasn’t allowed. So he’s switched to a backup Speedo silicone cap designed with extra ridges inside to help hold it in place, a cap often favoured by tonsorially-challenged swimmers. However Finbarr’s huge gigantic enormous colossal head was proving more than a match for even the specialist cap. This seemingly minor (to a non-swimmer) irritation wasn’t helping his mood and his internal struggle for some equilibrium.  He was probably reminded that, unlike any other of our group of swimmers, he was often to be found doing double or even triple laps of Sandycove without any cap in twelve degree water.

By the time three hours had elapsed one concern had become concrete. The hoped-for tidal push hadn’t materialised. Speed for the previous hour had dropped  to 1.9 miles per hour and Mate Sparky (Mark) was slightly concerned. Minutes before the third feed Finbarr has called for his favourite treat, a bar of Fry’s Turkish Delight, (which I have to agree is an exquisite confection far superior to its pale pastel middle-eastern predecessor). I was mildly surprised that he would request it so early, but of course Craig and I weren’t aware of that inner battle Fin was already fighting.

Inner turmoil, outer calm
Inner turmoil, outer calm

Finbarr Hedderman and the North Channel – II – Famous Pilot, Famous Boat

Finbarr, Craig Morrison and I arrived in Donaghadee on Saturday evening after a long drive. A not-so-brief trip around a Bangor supermarket saw we accumulate the usual Channel swim expedition-load of food, stopped off at our accommodation and proceeded to meet pilot North Channel Quinton Nelson on board the boat down in Donaghadee before sunset for a final briefing.

The night before the swim in Donaghadee Harbour
The night before the swim in Donaghadee Harbour

I’ve previously covered some, but not all of the extraordinary swims that I’ve been fortunate to either be part of or to know the people involved. I’ve covered Trent Grimsey’s and Sylvain Estadieu’s English Channel swims because they were important to the sport as a whole and I was lucky to be able to so do. I have always thought it important to de-mystify marathon swimming and I’ve chosen to cover certain swims for that primary reason. For example Peter Stoychev’s English Channel record was a thing of legend for most of us. Covering Trent’s Channel record allowed me to share my view of a similarly potentially mythical swim.

Only a handful of people get to be involved and present on almost any swim. Our sport happens in private and the recent additions of social media from boat crew and visible GPS trackers only tell a fraction of the story and not always even the truth.

I certainly know that we as crew do not always report what is happening during a swim, as we don’t want to worry family and friends if things aren’t completely fine. Crew don’t know how any  swim is going to end, and have no desire to seem to be negative afterwards.  Coverage of swims therefore is usually left to personal blogs, such as this and blogs can be hard to find and most of them go unnoticed outside a small group.

Saying all this is required (again) to explain that each of these big swims I’ve covered has something that I feel is important to convey  for the wider swimming community.

The North Channel has for decades been marathon swimming’s greatest mystery and challenge. The numbers attempting it have been very low and the numbers succeeding have been even lower. Therefore the information that filters into the wider swimming community is built on myth. Even though it’s considered an “Irish” swim (despite linking Ireland and Scotland, because it is regulated by the Irish Long Distance Swimming Association) until Finbarr’s swim, I never had a chance to crew on it and my previous signing up as an Observer for it led nowhere.  While I will talk more about the North Channel itself as we progress, all this introduction is required to speak about the other (silent) protagonist in this story, Quinton Nelson.

Sunrise hits Donaghadee harbour light, with Quinton Nelsons ex-RNLI boat the Guy and Clare Hunter nestled underneath with the crew onboard

Sunrise hits Donaghadee harbour light, with Quinton Nelsons ex-RNLI  boat the Guy and Clare Hunter nestled underneath with the crew onboard

For a couple of decades the North Channel had has one pilot, Brian Maharg. Quinton Nelson had previously been a pilot for the North Channel but not for many years. He operates a boat charter service out of the small but pretty and active port of Donaghdee south of Belfast Loch and is recognised as the global expert on the older RNLI rescue boats and their conservation and restoration.

Quinton casting off Donaghadee
Quinton casting off Donaghadee

His main boat, and his North Channel boat is the beautifully maintained ex-RNLI lifeboat The Guy and Clare Hunter, unlike any other boat on which I’ve crewed. She’d been on active service on the Isles of Scilly from 1955 and retired from active rescue service in 1981 and from relief service in 1988, having been involved in saving 130 lives over her service life, including the infamous Torrey Canyon tanker wreck.

When Fergal Somerville wished to attempt the North Channel in 2013, Brian Maharg was booked and Fergal was directed to ask Quinton if he would return to piloting for Fergal. That collaboration led to Fergal successfully crossing the North Channel in June 2013, earlier and in colder water than anyone else had previously done so, piloted across a new route by Quinton.

Fergal convincing Quinton to return and their successful swim was arguably the most important thing to happen to North Channel swimming since Mercedes Gleitze first attempted it, or since Tom Blower was finally successful.

Wayne Soutter’s 2012 alternative route across the North Channel, also covered on loneswimmer.com, while recognised as an official swim, has never been actually recognised as a North Channel swim. (Frankly, that’s a rabbit-hole I have no wish to go down right now).   Nonetheless Fergal and Quinton’s swim opened up the North Channel by using Quinton’s new route and adding a second pilot, after Quinton decided to return to a full North Channel piloting schedule. Indeed Quinton set the records for both fastest male and female crossing later in 2013.  One could even say that Quinton’s effect on North Channel swimming is greater than any other pilot in any other Channel, regardless of the claims of others.

At the evening briefing we were set for departure from the harbour around dawn. The weather forecast was good. Time to eat again, and Finbarr to try get some sleep.

Finbarr & Craig argue before the swim. Craig says Fin is getting off easy as he won't be stuck with me on a boat for a day.
Finbarr & Craig argue before the swim. Craig says Fin is getting off easy as he won’t be stuck with me on a boat for a day. Fin says he’ll take the jellyfish.

 

Finbarr Hedderman & The North Channel – I – Flowery Crap

On the boat as we steamed around to the start, Finbarrr admitted to Craig and I to being “more nervous than I’ve ever been in my life”. For those who know him, to say this was surprising is an understatement.

Finbarr Hedderman is one of those people whom it is difficult to describe without resorting to cliché. Having been at the cusp of his third decade for more than a year now, (perpetually 29), he stands well over six feet tall (193 centimeters). I am small beside him and he has a personality to match his size. He is endlessly jovial, utterly calm and seems impervious to the vicissitudes which assail the rest of us.  A proud citizen of The People’s Republic of Cork, he has the acerbic wit common to the county and almost any conversation with him is a verbal jousting match, which you will usually lose.

Finbarr's smile here belies the fact that his foot is planted on Liam Maher's neck underwater.

We first met in 2008 when he was training under Coach Eilís for an English Channel solo and I was part of an English Channel relay team whose internal divisions led Finbarr to describe our combined  monthly meetings with Coach as reminiscent of a soap opera. He comes from a water polo and swimming family. His Dad Pascal is a fixture around Sandycove also, and both men are passionate about their water polo, Finbarr having played for University College Cork’s team. I find the prospect of being in a pool holding a ball with Finbarr bearing down on me far more terrifying than any shark, storm or even jet ski at sea. I have been in the water and seen him alter course with the sole intention of sending me to the bottom forever.

He has been one of the trusted friends and swimmers whose opinion I value, once of course, I’ve steeled myself for the inevitable response to any question:

I’m having a real problem with salt in my mouth” I recall telling him in 2008, when I had never much considered the problem previously as my swims had been shorter. “Just shut your mouth“, was Fin’s inevitable advice.

He still says it to me.

Generally he does not admit to reading my blog, except to say “I see Donal is writing that flowery shit again” so I feel reasonably secure that I can write whatever I want about him and his North Channel solo and he won’t be able to comment.

Finbarr was successful on his English Channel solo in 2008. Once, when the subject of my ridiculous, never-ending and overly eventful English Channel solo arose, Fin’s comment was “Not even one of those things happened to me. I just got in the water in England and swam to France“.

I have long been of the opinion that he is likely (with Fergal Somerville, Lisa Cummins, Anne Marie Ward and Craig Lenning) one of the handful of best cold water distance swimmers in the world. I’m not talking about the splash and dash (to him) of an Ice Mile, which he finds merely “great craic” (having done a couple by now) but those rare swimmers who can take deep cold for hour after hour, and rather than talking how great they are at cold, as some do, they just go out and prove it, repeatedly. The tiny beach that local and visiting marathon swimmers use for feeding on Sandycove Island is named after him.

In early May, when the best of the rest at Sandycove are happy to complete two-hour open water swims, he has been known to swim six to eight hours. And then do it again the next day. At the same time he is fiercely anti-marathon swimming elitism and strongly supports those swimmers who are happy to swim a half lap or just to the first Sandycove corner and back. He’s also a committed experienced swim administrator having previously been heavily involved in national water polo and Sandycove Island swim club organisation. He’s also scared of sea-weed.

Finbarr started to think about the North Channel in 2012. It had always seemed not only inevitable to me, but indeed almost predestined. He shared his plan with a small number and I booked my place to crew for him immediately after he told me.

July 2014 arrived with a good Irish summer, an elusive occurrence that may only happen once a decade. Surprisingly the early summer of 2013 had also been excellent but it petered by late June. 2014 didn’t arrive with the same fireworks of mid twenty-degree heat, but stayed more consistent from the spring.  Fin had been doing the serious aforementioned Sandycove laps with joined most regularly by English Channel soloist Rob Bohane for six-hour swims and by Channel Soloists Ciarán Byrne and Craig Morrison and marathon swimmer Eoin Big Fish O’Riordan. I even joined Rob and Fin one Saturday morning in June when they had already done a couple of hours, I swam with them for two hours and then left the water having developed the Claw. Fin and Rob swam comfortably for another two hours.

July arrived and the waiting and weather watching began for Finbarr to attempt the first North Channel solo of the year. Early in the tide week, Finbarr went up to Donaghadee only to have to return the next day. As the week progressed we spoke daily and the forecast made it seem there was little chance of swimming.

Like the English, Gibraltar and Cook straits, the North Channel is very much defined by weather and the aspirant Channel swimmer may have even less opportunity and notification. So it proved. We spoke late on Thursday night and ruled any possible swim for the remainder of the tide window. Only to find that at  next day the forecast had changed yet again, and pilot Quinton Nelson called us north the following day for a tough day in the Mouth of Hell, as it has previously occasionally been called by swimmers who have attempted it.

 

Related articles

Tom Blower and the first successful North Channel swim.

Wayne Soutter’s historic & new North Channel route swim report – Part 1.

King of the English Channel Kevin Murphy, concerning the North Channel.